Some mammals know they're going to die. These three know they may die today.
“The sun has colors no one's ever seen,” says Ira.
Zoë Perry translates contemporary Portuguese-language literary fiction and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in Granta, Words Without Borders, Mānoa, and the Washington Square Review. In 2015 she was translator-in-residence at the FLIP international literary festival in Paraty, Brazil, and she received a PEN/Heim grant for her translation of Veronica Stigger's novel Opisanie świata. Zoë is a founding member of the London-based literary translators' collective, The Starling Bureau.
Behind him, Ossi opens his eyes. In front, Aurora does the same. Clung so close together, his voice vibrates through all three.
“What colors?” asks Ossi.
“Colors with no name, we can't see them,” says Ira. “I heard about it once, in the city.”
“There are colors we can't see?!” Aurora exclaims, shielding her eyes with her hand.
The sun strikes squarely upon them. Three hearts, six lungs, billions of nerves in a hammock, chest to chest, mouth to neck, concave, cove, convex. Young like the blooms on the cactus of Alendabar, the beach where they awake.
Ossi clutches Ira's side, who clutches Aurora's. She closes her eyes, bends her left knee. Ira finds an angle and enters her, with Ossi at his back. Their first time awaking together, first threesome, first hour of daylight.
This day had been waiting for them to change everything. Pact.
An old Beetle accelerates down the dirt road that leads to Alendabar, rutted, unpaved, kept that way to ward off strangers. The entire area surrounding the beach has one owner, called King. His visitors arrive by helicopter, so it's rare for an outsider to come this way. Not only is it bad, the road dead-ends at a fence, like at small private beaches. It's neither small nor private, but only those privy can bypass the barbed wire.
Felix leaps out of the Beetle, free at last. Not yet old enough to drive and already he barely fits inside the car, long legs, golden mane: he ties it atop his head, stretching his arms. In the sun, he glows. Fifteen years old! How did that happen?
Ursula, his mother, smiles, she doesn't know. She borrowed the Beetle from friends in this part of the world, parks it in the last wedge of shade before the fence. The first time she came here, it was all jungle, with no owner. That was when she met Felix's future father, and today she's bringing his ashes. He died many time zones from here, where the mother and son live. Felix has never been to this part of the world. He'd never even heard the name Alendabar.
“It sounds made up,” he told his mother as they were riding in the Beetle, dodging rain-filled potholes, mirrors to the sky.
Eyes on the road, Ursula replied: “Every name is made up.”
Aurora can feel Ira rocking back and forth down to the roots of her hair, emission of nerve on nerve, pelvis, vagina, stomach, pharynx, crown. She is practically on her belly, right leg outstretched, left leg bent, knee on chin, halfway out the hammock. When she closes her eyes, everything floats, aerial. When she opens them, the sun hits the cactus flower, another bud. Ira's palm covers her buttock, and with each forward thrust her pelvis contracts, each thrust backwards her pelvis expands: a pump of potassium and sodium, electric impulse, motive force.
At the same time, Ira can feel Ossi's rocking back and forth down to the roots of his hair, emission of nerve against nerve, anus, prostate, stomach, pharynx, crown. Eyes closed, he is thrown to the beasts. Eyes open, he is the lover in the middle, man behind, woman in front. He wants each light of this day, each color of this hour, the blue on the cactus flower: indigo. It bloomed the day he was born, said his grandmother. But the cactus was already thousands of years old, it had witnessed the arrival of the first man, or was it woman? It's been so long the equinoxes had turned round, the stars back to where they were.
Ossi's hands are on Ira's hips, much narrower than his. Ossi is the heaviest of the three, Ira the lightest. Ossi had never felt hips like that, and everything between them so tight, muscle giving its all. He won't open his eyes.
King is expecting a guest from the East to arrive at any moment, to whom he intends to sell a small part of his domain, the only part that doesn't turn a profit. Before scheduling the visit he consulted the sky map, as he usually does. He'd heard that that's what the kings did in times past, in the East, in the West. The equinox fell on a Friday, the timing was good. It would be the start of the new season, once called the harvest, now the slaughter.
“Why today?” asks Felix on the way to the beach, jumping over a puddle. “Was that a special date for you and Dad?”
“No,” says Ursula, not far behind. “But I thought he'd like it, because it's an equinox. North and South illuminated equally, day and night the same length, twelve hours of daylight... Remember?”
“Yeah, I didn't remember it was today. So spring is starting.”
“It's autumn here.”
“Oh, right. We're upside down.”
A bird lands up ahead, pecks at a drop of rain. Felix recognizes it from the album he's had since he was a child: a poupatuti! Without a doubt—it's the only one with that rainbow on its head. He'll send his father a picture. But the mere thought of this is so painful that his body jumps by itself. Jumps and jumps, if it might soften the pain. Part of Felix still thinks as if his father were alive. Maybe there are cells that refuse to know. Some of his cells don't know his father died.
“And why this beach?” he asks, jumping one last time. “You promised to tell me when we got here.”
“We're not there yet.” Ursula stops.
The whir of a helicopter fills the air. Mother and son look up, their same yellow eyes. Animal eyes, the man who formed a trio with them used to say. Before he was Felix's father, before he'd even met Ursula, he had tasted human ash in Alendabar. That was how they bid farewell to the dead, then. Part of the ashes was mixed with fruit, everyone ate a little. Then they would walk to the river-mouth to cast the rest to where the waters meet, fresh and salt.
Felix's future father told that to Ursula on this beach, the day after they met, and asked her if she would eat his ashes. He laughed so it wouldn't sound dramatic. He hated to sound dramatic.
He'd had several lives already. She was twenty years old.
The tops of two morambeira trees sway with the lovers' to-and-fro, shelter and splendor. For millennia, Alendabar's morambeiras have offered their branches for hammocks, refuge for fishermen's boats, as well as everything that lands, lives, eats or drinks from them. From them comes the fruit that is mixed with the ashes of the dead. And some are even turned into totem poles or large canoes. The only thing older is the cactus with the indigo flowers, also impossible to spot on other beaches, in other parts. Something that Ossi, Ira, and Aurora don't know because they have never seen any others.
This equinox will decide if they'll live to see it, twelve hours of light from the first. They didn't plan to spend it that way, it's the least defined hour in their plan. They'll hasten in the next ones, counting down until dusk. One nested into the other, who nests into the other, the whir in the sky does not stop them.
Meanwhile, in King's pastures, the cattle jumped with a start, with the whole beast's auditory anticipation. Rarely does a week go by here with no helicopters, and their hearts continue to pound, through atria and ventricles, so like that of a human it could replace it, only five times heavier. If they all shot off in stampede, on an impossible day, with no ranch hands or fences, the ground would tremble for many miles. They are the advanced infantry of the slaughter, the great army of the unwilling.
And soon King's serfs will penetrate horizons picked clean of jungle. As clean as exposed genitals on display, ready for the viewer.
King knows someone is approaching before any animal. A buzz in his pocket and he's out the doors of the palace, examining the air above. The terrace gives access to a landing pad of translucent stone, excavated by the river. A first appetizer for those arriving from the sky.
“Welcome,” murmurs King, with his cave mouth: black holes, stalactites. He has just located the speck of the helicopter carrying his guest.
Then suddenly a cry erupts, and King sprints inside. He is the father of a newborn baby, a living being of his own. He's never felt this kind of happiness. This new ferocity.
Tales of King's baby spread throughout Alendabar. He takes the infant in his arms at every cry. He changes the 1000-thread count cotton diapers, washed in the waterfall the elders say is sacred. He examines the excrement, its color, consistency, he could eat it, he will. He is not a person of faith but wants the gods at the feet of his offspring. This world and the other existed until this day to honor him.
Up above, at ten thousand feet, the guest from the East revels. The colors, the waters, the transparency! Small islands adorned with corals, certainly still alive: emeralds, cobalts, fuchsias, limes. No signs of whitening, of collapse, as far as the eye can see. And the helicopter turns toward the most majestic bay he's ever laid eyes on.
“Alendabar!!!” shouts the pilot.
He earns more per flight than what the serfs down below earn in a year. King is terrified of dying more than anything, sparing no expense to hire the best pilot. The contract is so generous that propaganda spouts from his mouth, spontaneously:
“The history of the world began in Alendabar, say the natives!”
The guest is inclined to agree, given what he's seen. A blooming border skirts the sand, broad and expansive. At one end of the beach, a black cliff butts against a volcano. At the other, the mouth of an incandescent river, which broadens considerably as it climbs and has an island in the middle. Inland lies the great pillage of the pastures, but the coast remains dense, intact, everything this Easterner envisions.
It was worth going round the planet, he thinks. Neither walls nor mastiffs, the jungle will be the best garrison.
Down below, however, the incandescent river fights for its life. Open-gilled shoals descend into the ocean, where sea-dragons embrace cotton swabs, soda cans give birth to crustaceans, crazy, mutant lovers that can't be seen from a helicopter, not even over a weekend. No one has measured the poison in this river since King arrived, with his livestock and mining plans. The livestock required a lot of water. The mining, a dyke for waste, which burst soon after. And those who lived by the riverside saw the river rush like never before, in a brown torrent. Crops, animals, houses, it took everything. An older woman entered the current to catch one of her animals. Her grandson, still a child, ran after her but was swallowed up, then he felt a blow. When he came to he was trembling in the mud, a neighbor had managed to pull him to the bank. Downstream they found the grandmother, pierced by an iron rod. She had given her grandson his name. A name from long ago, shortened for everyday use:
Ira! Slanted eyes from the ancestors, witness to so many crimes, object of how many more, first male by force, then female by force, now neither one nor the other.
The demand for serfs is great on King's land. Some brush is needed so they're not completely in the open, but they also can't stay out of view. Dissatisfaction spreads, you must watch every spark, stamp out the contagion. So when he arrived in Alendabar, King ordered the serfs' quarters to be built behind the slaughterhouse, a totally opaque place, so that no guest might veer off course and find himself where he shouldn't.
One of the first to sleep in these quarters was a fisherman, already a father to grown sons, a widower remarried to a younger woman. Soon after she fell pregnant he'd been told about a man, known as King, who was buying up the land around them and hiring people. It would be a more certain livelihood than the sea. The fisherman went, stayed, christened the new serfs' quarters. Turning out to be a trap, his sons tried to free him. What happened next was never explained. The police, called in from the city, declared King the victim of assault, father and sons drowned. Police come, police go, Alendabar learned to keep its mouth shut. And the fisherman's last son was born:
Ossi! Those who live on the sea know its bottom, body wrought by line and harpoon, the Earth awaits those who circle it, beyond the river-mouth, beyond the volcano, no human will sway him, it's a vow.
The mother of King's son was scrutinized in the highlands of Alendabar. Eggs, fallopian tubes, uterus, genes, all investigated in private before the insemination. The maiden's parents, devotees of a cult, gave thanks for the lack of sexual intercourse. In Alendabar they say that the King is averse, never known to have a relationship. She would become a saint, her future guaranteed, had she not died in childbirth, of infection. Only one hand held hers to the end:
Aurora! Crested, flaxen mane, milky complexion, freckles, the youngest of the manor, matriarch mother, much older siblings, a runaway, barnstormer, she sings herself to sleep.
“I saw the sky on fire / the sun was blue / and the sea red” Aurora's eyelids lower.
The slumber that follows the great short circuit (spasms, tachycardia, hyper-oxygenation, reduction of cortex activity, explosion of neurotransmitters: orgasm).
“There really is a red sea,” says Ira.
Ossi stretches his arm over both of them, pressing them against his body. He is also nearly asleep (oxytocin, dopamine, everything slows, even the morambeiras).
“I don't know about a blue sun,” continues Ira. “But in the frozen lands you can see three suns, like on the journey of Upa-la.”
Silence. Ossi is breathing behind him, Aurora, ahead. Ira keeps going:
“My grandmother said Upa-la was the first canoe. One night, thousands of years ago, a storm blew over a morambeira. In the morning they saw it floating in the river, tethered by the treetop. If they let it go, it would rush swiftly downstream. So, they would travel swiftly with it. They pulled it out of the water, removed its bark, and carved out the trunk. And that was how the first canoe came to be, because for everything there is a first. And that is what they named it, Upa-la.
He peeks behind him: Ossi is asleep, mouth open. He peeks ahead: fast things are happening under Aurora's eyelids. And good things, because she's smiling.
Ira peers at the sun, squinting. The next minute he's asleep.
Twenty serfs hustle inside the slaughterhouse. Heat is the enemy of meat, just like blood or a poorly-sharpened knife. Before daybreak, all King's serfs must be fed and watered, euphemism for a gourd of flour and water. Then the radiant star that gives life to everything rises up between two morambeiras, and everyone goes to their station: mine, livestock, jungle.
Slaughtering cattle fell to these twenty. Amid ramps and rigs, hooks and hoists, it is not uncommon for them to empty bowels with their hands, to step barefoot in the bile. The acrid smell of blood gets into their skin, their hair, under their nails. Slip in blood, breathe blood. The smell of blood terrifies the cattle. If they didn't know before, they know now: they're going to die. They bellow, they kick, held back by the sledgehammer.
Proper slaughterers use a pistol before the beheading, a direct shot to brain. If it fails the first time, you keep going until the job's done. The goal is to immobilize the cattle as they're chained upside down, the knife cuts their throat and blood pours out. It's been proven that suffering damages the final product, so you get better meat on the plate and, as a bonus, humanitarian seal of approval.
King, however, stokes a parallel universe, through the backdoor. A sledgehammer to the skull remains his method, which almost always requires several blows. Not only do the cattle arrive at the bloodbath semi-conscious, but their skulls half-crushed as well.
Felix inspects the fence in search of a weak spot, an opening onto the beach.
“Unbelievable the way they closed this off,” says Ursula, hands on hips.
“Are you sure it's not private?”
“I'm sure. The beach is a nature reserve. But everything around it was bought up by a guy they call King, according to our friends with the Beetle.”
“King?” Felix walks to the right. “King of what?”
“Who knows. Cattle, lumber. His belly.”
Ursula walks in the opposite direction. She can see giant cactuses through the fence. She'd never forgotten those cactus. According to the creation story of Alendabar, they were the world's first cactus, but they would still bloom, said Felix's father. So that had happened sometime since Ursula met him on this beach. And how they'd bloomed, she thinks. What a magnetic blue.
“Felix!” she shouts suddenly. She found the opening in the fence.